Two Years of Turmoil: Myanmar’s Spiraling Civil War
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series about Myanmar’s escalating political crisis. The first part will offer an overview of the conflict, and the state of the humanitarian emergency and economic crisis affecting post-coup Myanmar. The second part will analyze the overall conflict and the status of the two sides, while the third will explore ignored undercurrents that provide a fuller picture of the civil war.
February 1 marked two years since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, launched a disastrous putsch that has plunged the country into broader strife and economic meltdown. The State Administration Council (SAC) military junta still struggles to impose its rule across the country as a mosaic of activists and armed groups tenaciously resist the coup in an expanding civil war.
Citing the spiraling violence, the SAC on January 31 extended the state of emergency beyond the normal limit provided by the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which it claims to uphold. The growing list of townships under martial law, 47 at the time of writing, reflects the regime’s tenuous position. It also argued that better population data was needed for its much-promised elections that its opponents have denounced and vowed to disrupt. With plans to hold the next census in October 2024, the polls will be held in 2025 at the earliest, if at all.
In the interim, the SAC has made various gestures aimed at legitimizing itself, such as holding a major parade to mark Myanmar’s 75th Independence Day – the 57th to take place under military rule – conferring thousands of titles including upon themselves, and building a huge temple in Naypyidaw. Recent “discoveries” of a baby white elephant and a 2,800-carat ruby are interpreted as divine signs of the SAC’s legitimacy and eventual victory.Diplomat BriefWeekly NewsletterN
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Arrayed against the regime are hundreds of grassroots-level armed groups, including the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) nominally led by the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) with collaboration from a number of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that have long fought against successive central governments. Peaceful protests, including the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), continue but have lost steam and have been relegated to the back seat of the anti-junta struggle.
The SAC is doubling down on repression against its opponents and those suspected of supporting the resistance in any way. In December, it handed down a 33-year prison sentence to the 77-year-old popular former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, meant to permanently bar her from politics. A large number of activists and protest leaders have been detained and tortured. There have been reports of security forces arresting any youth on sight after PDF attacks and giving them multi-year prison sentences. The regime has also announced prison terms of up to 10 years for anybody found to have merely liked posts on resistance-aligned social media accounts and pages.
For its part, the NUG launched a “people’s defense war” in September 2021, vowing to quickly overthrow the regime. It is building a broad coalition of ethnic groups, civil society, activists, and militias through the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) whose People’s Assembly ratified the Federal Democracy Charters in January 2022, based on which an interim constitution is being drafted after coup opponents declared the 2008 constitution void.
Two years on, there is no clear winner in Myanmar’s unmitigated conflict. Pictures accompanying current articles and op-eds on the country still showcase peaceful protesters with their three-fingered salutes but these images no longer summarize the country’s political turmoil. Instead, it resembles a grim kaleidoscope of political violence marked by images of bullet-riddled bodies, burnt-out villages, and displaced families. The Tatmadaw has deployed its indiscriminate “four cuts” strategy against the very people it swears to protect; the heinous tactics once used with impunity in ethnic minority areas have now been set loose on the Bamar heartland.
The NUG upped the ante in October 2022, declaring that it will go on the offensive and depose the SAC in 2023. A senior NUG minister recently gave the junta a “people’s ultimatum” demanding surrender and vowing victory by the year’s end. The under-resourced PDFs punch well above their weight against the Tatmadaw, receiving support from sympathetic EAOs and foreign volunteers, expanding their coordination as well as arms production capacity. Predictions abound among resistance supporters of imminent victory but there is no firm sign of this outcome, with the only certainty being that the bloodshed has no end in sight.
According to an analysis by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, up to 300 of Myanmar’s 330 townships have reported some form of armed incidents since the coup but much fewer have seen frequent or recent incidents. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project indicates that around 6,100 clashes have taken place over the past two years, with an apparent downward trend since the middle of last year. The Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar (ISP-Myanmar), meanwhile, reports more than 8,100 clashes during the same period, with nearly 2,700 in 2021 and over 5,300 in 2022. Mutraw/Hpapun in Karen State alone registered over 4,100 battles during 2021 and 2022, and has also been bombed the most by the regime’s air force.
ACLED reports approximately 32,000 political violence-related deaths in the 24 months since the coup, of which around 20,000 have been from battles and over 7,000 from explosions. Reflecting the evolving conflict landscape, northwestern Myanmar accounted for 19,000, or 60 percent, of recorded post-coup deaths, which includes 13,000 in the Sagaing Region alone, followed by 4,000 in the Magway Region. The other conflict hotspot in southeastern Myanmar has seen around 6,500 confirmed deaths, or 20 percent of the total, according to ACLED.
The Tatmadaw never reveals casualty figures though it has admitted losses from time to time. Meanwhile, the NUG publishes daily figures and claims that resistance forces have killed over 20,000 junta troops with a loss of just 2,000 fighters. This is hard to verify and sober assessments argue that the numbers have been embellished for propaganda purposes.
More than 3,000 civilians have been reported killed by SAC forces and an estimated 300 from the regime’s air strikes while the junta recently blamed PDF attacks for killing nearly 5,500 civilians. The overall toll of the post-coup violence is likely higher, though by how much nobody quite knows. The SAC’s gutting of the domestic media, including its internet blackouts and weaponization of disinformation, coupled with the fact that exiled news platforms have largely become resistance propaganda channels, have complicated the task of verifying casualty counts. Regardless, combined junta and resistance casualties are likely to be in the low tens of thousands.
The above figures don’t include the untold tens of thousands who died during the COVID-19 third wave, nor the deaths from preventable or treatable diseases due to a hollowed-out health system, the toll among displaced and refugee communities, and rising suicides amid the country’s mental health crisis. With international donors juggling multiple global crises, combined with domestic economic hardship and gridlock in humanitarian relief efforts, communities have to largely fend for themselves.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in March that 17.6 million people, almost a third of Myanmar’s population, need humanitarian aid, and that around 1.3 million have been displaced since the coup. Nearly 750,000 are displaced in Sagaing alone, plus 230,000 in Magway and Chin State, while around 400,000 have been forced to flee in the southeast. Proportion-wise, a third of the Karenni State’s population, 20 percent of Chin and 13 percent of Sagaing have been displaced. And at least 48,500 homes have been reported torched, 75 percent of them in the Sagaing Region.
These staggering numbers do not include the roughly 330,000 internally displaced persons from conflicts predating the coup. Nor do they count the 1 million Rohingya refugees languishing in Bangladeshi camps who marked five years since the Tatmadaw’s latest pogrom and now find themselves forgotten by the international community and predated upon by their own erstwhile defenders. The regime is attempting to restart repatriations, but resistance groups oppose it, saying it is only meant to reduce international pressure.Advertisement
The operational space for humanitarian organizations has narrowed over the past two years. The SAC has weaponized health and humanitarian aid through over-bureaucratization, foot-dragging, and extreme scrutiny of travel permits. It has placed odious restrictions on humanitarian aid, food, medicines and other essential items in order literally to choke restive regions into submission. With agricultural productivity plunging in conflict areas, the food security situation is grim across the board.
The SAC is forcing all NGOs to re-register and continues to restrict the flow of funds. And fearing humanitarian or medical supplies may end up in the hands of “undesired persons,” the regime demands impossible guarantees and severely restricts life-saving medicines and commodities. State functionaries and implementers in the health and humanitarian sectors also operate in the fear that one tiny mishap will cost them their heads. Such restrictions will hamper any response should a natural calamity strike the disaster-prone country, especially in contested areas.
On the other side, resistance platforms have denounced domestic and international relief organizations that have had to acknowledge the junta, holding them in contempt as “regime stooges.” Such organizations operating in PDF areas have also reported restrictions and being accused of spying for the SAC. While these pale in comparison to the junta’s systemic obstructionism and organized violence, they add a layer of unneeded complexity that agencies have to navigate to meet pressing humanitarian needs.
The social fabric is broken, with fathers threatening to kill their sons, best friends doxing each other over political differences or merely the celebration of personal social occasions, and families forced to disown their children. Crime runs rampant and U.N. agencies report that half the country is in poverty owing to the twin impacts of COVID-19 and the coup. Monasteries, orphanages, and seminaries in major towns and cities are seeing influxes of children as desperate parents send their offspring away to avoid them being pressganged by both pro and anti-SAC militias.
On top of all of this, 8 million children are now estimated to be out of school due to boycotts, the militarization of schools, attacks on educators, and economic despair. More and more children are selling garlands and rice stalks or offering to wash car mirrors in major cities, their future gone. Tellingly, only 180,000 candidates registered for the 2023 matriculation examination compared to 910,000 in 2020. This widespread disruption in basic education will cripple Myanmar for generations to come.
Myanmar’s economy lumbers on after severely contracting in 2021. Overall macroeconomic indicators appear to have stabilized but are bogged down by plummeting productivity, foreign current and import permit restrictions, insecurity, rolling blackouts and high inflation – topped off by heavy-handed SAC policies that flip-flop without warning. Businesses are walking a tightrope between the junta and its opponents, fearing crackdowns, violence, and social shaming.
The junta has claimed investment inflows but firms continue to leave due to security, economic, or reputational issues. The World Bank projects a relatively modest 3 percent growth for 2023, barring major disruptions, demonstrating the people’s and businesses’ resilience in the face of monumental adversity. Union voices who fled abroad say workers are willing to sacrifice their jobs for the revolution, though many workers say otherwise.
Since the coup, the kyat has fallen by 50 percent against other currencies due to mismanagement, speculation, and rumors. Those still with money have rushed to buy properties and gold to hedge against the kyat’s volatility. The banking sector also appears to have stabilized, though is still subject to stifling limitations.
There is little public faith in the SAC being able to put the brakes on Myanmar’s economic meltdown and regime opponents expect that a Sri Lanka-style debt crisis is just a matter of time, despite optimistic regime statements. They also hope that the country’s blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force will hasten the regime’s demise, but in reality, the listing places severe restrictions on both camps. Businesses, regular citizens, and resistance groups are reviving informal hundi channels to bypass the SAC’s currency restrictions.
The SAC reports trade surpluses and having “sufficient” foreign exchange reserves, yet the imposition of fixed exchange rates and forced currency conversion requirements indicates that things aren’t quite so rosy. The regime has adopted a neo-mercantilist approach, clamping down on imports and promoting import substitution, which the World Bank warns risks stifling the economy in the long run.
The NUG has declared an economic war to cut off the SAC’s funding flows but it remains to be seen how effective it is given that the Tatmadaw can easily pass the impact onto the populace. It also walks a very fine line in cushioning the impact of multiple crises on the ordinary people, while radical resistance voices preach a scorched earth policy to raze the economy and hasten the SAC’s demise. NUG supporters also allege that the junta is deliberately exacerbating the economic crisis to stifle domestic resistance, with donations to anti-regime channels having dried up across the board.Advertisement
Young and educated members of the population are leaving in droves through both formal and informal channels. With manual labor in Thailand, cleaning jobs in Dubai, or posts in shadowy casinos along the porous borders paying way more than local rates, even Yangon’s pool of semi-skilled labor is draining away. Local media regularly report irregular economic migrants being arrested by the Thai authorities or dying in tragic circumstances, such as a group of 13 Rohingya boys who suffocated outside Yangon while being smuggled in a fuel tanker.
All these tragedies stem from an unjustifiable coup that cut short Myanmar’s flawed experiment with democracy. The entire crisis is man-made, and was completely avoidable. Unlike other countries, Myanmar now has two groups claiming to be its real government, yet neither is in any frame of mind to seek a peaceful political solution. Whoever “wins” will find a charred landscape, its people destitute and its future in ruins.